While he failed to capture its coveted 15 electoral votes on November 2, President George W. Bush certainly has New Jersey to thank for contributing to his recent reelection. After all, it was the Garden State that gave birth to a crucial cog in the gears of his historic campaign; a cog responsible for visiting 39 states over the past 12 months, rallying millions of GOP faithful, and orchestrating one of the most challenging political conventions in recent history—a cog by the name of Ed Gillespie.
Born in Mount Holly at Burlington County Memorial Hospital and raised in Browns Mills, Gillespie, 43, went from being just another small-town boy who took humble bike rides with his dog and ran from the Jersey Devil, to Chairman of the Republican National Committee and regular strategic confidant of the leader of the free world. Now, not interested in seeking reelection for his position in favor of spending more time with his family and “go back to a fairly ordinary life,” Gillespie is scheduled to relinquish his post on January 18. And, as the closing of most chapters in life have a tendency to inspire, Gillespie looks back on his journey and the rewards he reaped from a position that often takes so much.
“It’s been a fantastic experience but 18 months of it is enough,” says Gillespie, who took over as Chairman in July of 2003. “I do want to spend more time with my family. I’ve loved every minute of the job but it is a demanding job. Every day would begin with a 7 am phone call, followed by a 7:30 phone call, followed by an 8 o’clock meeting and it would go until 10:00 or 10:30 [PM] with a constant stream of information on [my] Blackberry or cell phone.”
Growing up as the fifth child in a six-child, Irish-Catholic home, Gillespie says he never envisioned rising to such prominent heights. Although he found enjoyment in politics at an early age, the idea of working in that field was a reach much further than he was able to embrace.
“I was fascinated by politics. I went to college [at the Catholic University of America] to be a reporter and to cover politics. Coming from a town like Browns Mills, my brothers, sisters and I are the first generation of Gillespies to ever attend college. My parents never went,” says the Chairman. “My father was an immigrant from Ireland, and Washington D.C. might as well have been Paris, France or Athens, Greece. It seemed so far away. But I thought I could go there and be a newspaper reporter. I could cover politics. I never dreamed that I could be in politics.”
It is this very tone of grounded minimalism—an almost palpable disregard for the effusive—that seems to have guided Gillespie through a life destined to be composed of the highly elite and, often times, thoroughly ungrounded. His is a story devoid of the Victorian flourishes one expects from the politically accomplished; a rising tale more akin to brandished blue collars than the baroque trappings one may stereotypically associate with the party he serves.
“[My childhood] was fairly idyllic, playing a lot of sandlot baseball and football and riding bikes. I had a dog that I grew up with and he and I would go out on long treks. It was a small town childhood,” says Gillespie. “New Jersey is like two different states. There’s the 201 [area code] state and the 609 state. I grew up in the 609 state. And I do think that in terms of being well-suited to politics, growing up in a town like Browns Mills, which is very diverse, and going to a high school like Pemberton Township at a time when race relations could be testy back in the ‘70s—you know, race relations were very, very good and I have a great deal of comfort talking with people from all kinds of different backgrounds.”
This is one aspect of his childhood Gillespie admires just as much as the backyard baseball games and lakeside walks of inspiring wanderlust. He is certain the social tenor of his high school and hometown prepared him for the task of keeping track of—and remaining connected to—an entire nation of voters.
“[Pemberton Township high school] had a very ethnically diverse student population. It’s really a good experience. It was a formative experience for me and it has been a helpful experience to me in politics,” he says. “You make friends from all walks of life…It’s racially diverse and there are people of means and there are very poor students there. And so you really do get to meet people from all walks.”
Gillespie also remained close to his family. He tells one story about the characteristic protection of his mother, an all too familiar account of maternal anxiety.
“Browns Mills had, and still has, a volunteer emergency fire service and so there is a big siren in the middle of Browns Mills. If there was a fire or somebody was hurt, the siren would go off and whoever [was] the volunteer slated for that time would go to the ambulance to drive it to go get somebody or the fire truck to go get somebody,” he says. “And my mother would give us a dime when we left in the morning, and if the siren blew we would have to find a payphone and call her to tell her we were fine.”
While attending Catholic University, Gillespie worked several jobs to help support his education; and it was one of these positions—a Senate parking lot attendant on Capitol Hill—that helped him wedge his South Jersey-sand-trodden foot in the political door.
“One of the people I parked cars with was an intern in a congressional office and he told me of another opening in that congressional office, and I ended up interning there. That eventually led to a job and I was able to work my way up the political ladder from there,” says Gillespie.
While he recalls being drawn to the Republican Party from a young age, the Senator he first served under was a Democrat. Gillespie’s official party allegiance didn’t change until his boss suddenly decided to switch parties in 1984.
“As an Irish-Catholic kid from New Jersey, my roots were Democratic. My mother—her family was very strongly Democrat. My father’s family was Democrat, although he was registered independent and still is today. And he was enamored, like so many Irish-Catholic Democrats, with Ronald Reagan,” says Gillespie. “I found myself relating more to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party, which, back then, was more staunchly anti-communist and more, I think, about opportunity. And so I related more readily to Ronald Reagan than I did to [Reagan’s Presidential opponent] Walter Mondale.”
With journalism quickly becoming a fading option, Gillespie’s political career took off. By 1994 he was the principal author of the “Contract With America,” a crucial element to helping Republicans win control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. In 1996—after serving as a top aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R, TX) for more than a decade—Gillespie became the Director of Communications and Congressional Affairs at the RNC under then Chairman Haley Barbour.
In the summer of 2000, Gillespie helped manage the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and served as communications director for the President’s inauguration in January of 2001. His resume also includes time spent serving as general strategist for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate campaign in 2002, in which she won the largest margin of victory of any Senate candidate in North Carolina in over 25 years in the most expensive Senate race in 2002. No wonder it was under his watch that this November saw the first reelection of a United States President by way of a national majority vote since George H. W. Bush in the most expensive campaign in U.S. history.
Of his Chairman duties, Gillespie says, “There are a number of different roles you play. I think that the most important is as a messenger in making the case for the President’s reelection and his policies. Why you believe [Massachusetts] Senator [John] Kerry and his policies were wrong. Raising the resources necessary to fund campaign activities—and not just the President’s reelection, but [also] House and Senate races and Governor’s races, helping in that regard. Managing a field staff—a very big field staff—and making sure we’re getting out our votes and registering voters. And then traveling.”
Gillespie says his typical workweek leading up to this election comprised office work on Mondays followed by traveling to western states on Tuesdays to deliver campaign speeches and appear on morning drive-time talk radio programs. The Chairman then headed back to the mid-west on Wednesdays for similar functions and rounded out the circuit on Thursdays with speeches in East Coast states only to make it back to his home in Alexandria, VA in time to put his three children, John Patrick, Carrie, and Mollie Brigid to bed. This doesn’t even account for the time spent doing television interviews Friday through Sunday, all the while trying to orchestrate perhaps his biggest political accomplishment: the Republican National Convention in New York City.
Despite political pundit premonitions of disruptive protests, crime, and potential terrorist attacks, the convention—which took place during the first weekend of September—was an enormous success, both politically and socially. The President, who had been sliding in the polls leading up to the GOP spectacle in the Big Apple, received a significant bounce in popularity, which he was clearly able to carry through all the way to November.
“I believe that it is the most successful political convention ever, if you just look at where we were going into the convention and where we were coming out of it,” says Gillespie. “And it was important in terms of projecting an image of the President and the (Republican) party that I think were very positive; but also laying out an agenda on which to run. So I’m very proud of this convention. I think it was the perfect blend of imagery in terms of the man—the President—and philosophy and issues of policy and entertainment and fun. It was a very good mix.”
As it pertains to Gillespie’s boss—whom he has gotten to know quite well during his tenure—the Chairman is steadfast in his assessment that what you see is what you get.
“I think that [George W. Bush] has been President for four years and the general public has a pretty good awareness of the President. So I don’t think there’s anything that I’ve seen in my interactions with him that I don’t jive with the general perception. He’s a very compassionate person,” says Gillespie. “There seems to be a perception in the media that he is not focused on the details of policy and I can tell you that he is very focused on the details of policy. But I do think people enjoy his sense of humor, his self-deprecating style. They appreciate his being a devoted father and a dedicated husband. I think they appreciate his strength and his resolve. And those are all things I saw first hand. They’re there.”
Upon stepping down from his Chairman position, Gillespie will return to work for the company he founded, Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a bipartisan public relations, advertising and lobbying firm that provides strategic advice and government representation to corporations, trade associations and issue-based coalitions. And while he is not closing the door to future political aspirations (after all, George H. W. Bush was RNC Chairman under Richard Nixon), Gillespie is looking forward to getting back to coaching his son’s basketball team and leading a slightly less chaotic life.
“I love the interaction with people and I’m not ruling out sometime later on in life maybe considering running for office; but I think for now I just need to get back to a fairly ordinary life and coach basketball and spend time with my children,” he says. “One of the great things about politics is that it’s a great meritocracy and if you are half-way intelligent and you’re willing to work long and hard and commit to principals and people, it was surprising to me how far you can go.
“There’s a misperception that people go far in politics because they have an ivy league degree or they came from a connected family or they were willing to be backstabbers…The fact is, you can go very far in politics, regardless of pedigree or connections; and only if you’re ethical.”
Published in South Jersey Magazine, January 2005. For more info on South Jersey Magazine, click here. To subscribe to South Jersey Magazine, click here. To advertise in South Jersey Magazine, click here. To find out where to pick up your free copy of South Jersey Magazine, click here.